Writer: Chris Hannan
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Swinging Sixties were known for many things – the sexual revolution and the rise of protests on the streets being among them. And towards the end, in Birmingham in 1968, a speech by a local Member of Parliament caused a storm that is still felt today.
Enoch Powell was a controversial character. Fiercely intelligent, he served with distinction in the war. Later, he entered politics, eventually becoming Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West in 1950. The Front Bench quickly beckoned. He opposed the passing of the 1968 Race Relations Act, finding it offensive and immoral. Many of his constituents were to write to him complaining of the impact of immigration on their lives, leading to his famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the entire shocking text of which closes the first half of What Shadows.
What Shadows is a very complex play that looks at Powell and those around him and seeks to present him as a man with strengths and flaws. We see the Powell of 1967 and 1968 with his wife, Pam, and his friends, the editor of the local paper, Clem Jones and his wife. Jones was in many ways the polar opposite of Powell; a Quaker, he had been a conscientious objector in the war and held rather more liberal views than his friend. We also see the inhabitants of one of Powell’s streets where immigrants moved in and the indigenous population felt threatened and moved on.
Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell is astonishing. He does succeed in making Powell rounded and considered even as he argues his racist bile. A commanding presence on stage, we are magnetically drawn to him as he justifies his stance with George Costigan’s Clem Jones and Paula Wilcox’s Marjorie Jones, both of who implacably oppose him despite their long-standing friendship. Costigan brings to life Jones’ conflicted nature between his principles – which are quite unshakeable – and their friendship. Wilcox, in an excellent performance, manages to slip, chameleon-like, between the characters of Marjorie and that of Grace Hughes, one of Powell’s constituents who finds herself the only white woman in her street. And we see the difficulties faced by the immigrant population of her street as they seek to find work and to be accepted in a world where casual racism is widespread and even the norm.
In 1992, we find Powell isolated in his twilight years. He was quickly abandoned by Clem and Marjorie after the speech. We also meet new characters and academics – Sofia Nicol (Bríd Brennan, who also turns in a stellar performance as Powell’s devoted and unswerving wife, Pam) and Rose Cruickshank (Rebecca Scroggs). Nicol is in enforced retirement having been outed as a racist by Cruickshank. Brennan allows her to make her points intelligently, making her point that everyone, every group, is racist to a degree. They form an unlikely alliance as they seek for the meaning of identity leading to an interview with Powell.
This is an emotive play, dealing with a subject that resonates in the current climate. It would be easy to sensationalise, but Hannan’s writing and Roxana Silbert’s precise direction ensure it steers clear of that path, making it, if anything, more chilling. All of the characters are presented unapologetically, warts and all, and it is this honesty that makes it so hard-hitting. The dialogue is real for both periods, uncomfortably so at times. Ti Green’s simple set, enhanced by understated projections, is a constant reminder of both the river of the speech and the idealised vision of England so beloved of Powell.
What Shadows succeeds in presenting its protagonists as real people with firmly held beliefs. Like Powell in his heydey, it is hypnotising. It is simultaneously thoughtful, thought-provoking and difficult to watch.
Runs until 12 November 2016 | Image: Ellie Kurttz